Her_Joaquin Phoenix sitting mid_Image credit Warner Bros Pictures © 2014 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

A Comfortable Future: The Costume Design of Her

The near future romance Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, whose widely diverse resume ranges from the world of music videos to MTV’s Jackass to major motion pictures, brought together a creative team that costume designer Casey Storm refers to as “friends first, and co-workers second.” Storm and production designer K.K. Barrett create a soft, comfortable world of tomorrow. Shot on location around Los Angeles and Shanghai, Barrett avoided familiar locations to create a world that is accessible but not overtly recognisable.

Our first introduction to the world feels very familiar. Seated in an office in a simple button up, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, dictates a letter to his computer as we see the words scrolled onto the screen. The lighting is soft and warm. The office furniture is a mix of lightwoods and pops of color in shapes and patterns that are reflective of the mid-century modern movement.

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. Costume designer Casey Storm employed layering to imply a ‘dressing soft’ future based foremost on comfort
Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. Costume designer Casey Storm employed layering to imply a ‘dressing soft’ future based foremost on comfort

As Theodore ventures out of the office, we begin to encounter elements that place us in another time. Twombly navigates his email and calendar through an earpiece, speaking to a somewhat cold computer voice (think present-day Siri). The crowds he walks amongst wear customary garments paired and styled in unusual ways. Storm makes an interesting use of layering, with many people wearing multiple shirts. One button-up closed at the neck, with another left open overtop is a common theme. The colour palette is sunny, but slightly muted in sherbet colors of ice blue, orangey red, and pale yellow.

These looks are minimalised, with pieces such as belts and ties completely absent and other elements like shirt colors either shrunken or removed. There is a subtle use of pattern that is mainly geometric and small; scale- stripes and checks stand out. Theodore beautifully stands out from this world as he moves through the city in a solid red unstructured jacket.

Twombly’s high waist trousers have received considerable press coverage. Of course they are only high waisted based on contemporary styles. Compared to trousers of the 1930s they are practically low rise.
Twombly’s high waist trousers have received considerable press coverage. Of course they are only high waisted based on contemporary styles. Compared to trousers of the 1930s they are practically low rise.

Also present in this near future are those high-waisted pants that have received more press than almost any other element of the film. That a change in pant fit stood out more to viewers than a man falling in love with a computer system might be more telling of our culture than the film itself. The pants are seen on several characters throughout the film. They appear in neutral colours of greys and tans, and are a heavy wool blend. They are not the only piece of retro-futurism in the film, as many vintage pieces are integrated, including 1990s style chest stripe polo shirts and 1970s style patch pocket jackets among others. Storm describes the use of vintage styles: “We went backwards in time rather than forwards for influence, mixing different garments from different eras. I knew I wanted silhouettes to be slightly different than contemporary silhouettes, but the goal was to not be distracting.”

After establishing characters and dealing with the emotional baggage of Theodore’s divorce through a series of flashbacks, we are introduced to the operating system that will serve as the central story. Theodore purchases the software in a quiet, casual scene and goes home to install it. Having already encountered the cold computer voice that we as the audience are used to, we like Twombly are taken aback when the O.S.’s voice, performed by Scarlett Johansson, is warm and life-like. As he gets to know her, we see their relationship move from more formal to familiar in scenes that find him in bed, traveling through town, and in the office. Theodore is seen predominately in the high-waisted trousers and simple button-ups with either no collar, or a small button-down style, all in soft natural fibres. This use of natural materials is consistent throughout the costuming of the entire film. Storm describes this decision as one of access and comfort. “In the future, one has access to everything. Why wouldn’t we create a world that is warm and cosy and soothing? Why wouldn’t we gravitate towards colours and fabrics and textures that made us feel comfortable and loved?” He also drew inspiration from the current “green” movement in informing the fabrics of the future. “There is such a big push towards eco and towards recycling. This lends itself to the idea that the materials of the past should be used again in the future. We wouldn’t be creating new materials; we would just be reusing old materials.”

Storm on Amy Adams’ costumes as Amy, “She wasn’t trying to impress anybody, but did have a good sense of style.”
Storm on Amy Adams’ costumes as Amy, “She wasn’t trying to impress anybody, but did have a good sense of style.”

Consistent with Storm’s message of comfort is the idea of tasteful modesty exhibited by the women of the film. The story deals with themes of sexual repression and lack of physical contact. In this manner, the women of Her are dressed in clothes that don’t flaunt them as sexual objects, but display a respect for intellect and emotional connection. Amy Adams’ styles as Theodore’s best friend Amy exhibit playfulness in the use of cropped pants, quirky layering, and pops of colour while remaining buttoned to the neck. Storm describes the motivation behind her looks in this way: “We wanted her to feel comfortable in her own skin. She wasn’t trying to impress anybody, but she did have a good sense of style.”

Theodore’s one foray into the dating world brings us the beautiful Olivia Wilde as Samantha, slightly drunk and passionately kissing Twombly outside of a restaurant. There is no lack of desirability to her, but she is fully covered with a structured blouse layered over a collared shirt, once again buttoned to the neck.

Even Olivia Wilde’s sexuality as blind date Samantha is played down in high buttoning garments, which conversely could draw further attention to her form.
Even Olivia Wilde’s sexuality as blind date Samantha is played down in high buttoning garments, which conversely could draw further attention to her form.

As we move through the film and becoming increasingly comfortable with Theodore, it is fascinating to note the repetition of garments. Storm built a very limited closet for Twombly that lends nicely to a sense of believability, matching the storyline in a manner that is signature to the designer’s own process. “I want to know that guy inside and out and I don’t need a bunch of looks to tell that story, I just need to get the few stories that I do tell right. Always quality over quantity.”

While the costumes do draw a bit of extra attention in the establishing scenes, as we get to know this world we are watching, they quickly fade to the background. The clever use of natural fabrics, subtle patterns, and de-saturate colors work beautifully to create a soft world in which this very personal, vulnerable story then plays out.

By Joe Kucharski

Joe Kucharski is a Costume Designer, Assistant Professor and Writer. He runs and operates Tyranny Of Style, providing a closer look at costume design and the language of clothing – covering film, TV, theatre, 3D printing, and fashion history.

Her is released in the UK on 14th February.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.